Monday, October 21, 2013

American Beauty (1999)

Even John Wayne Bobbitt Got His Dick Back

directed by Sam Mendes
starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Chris Cooper,
Wes Bentley, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari

Barely a decade after American Beauty swept the 1999 Oscars, screenwriter Alan Ball's bathetic this-is-your-life homilies had been skewered by Todd Solondz in Storytelling to many a chuckle, and Beauty had earned itself a rep as the unworthiest Best Picture champ since Dances with Wolves trounced GoodFellas. Unlike its awakening-of-the-emasculated-self brethren Fight Club and The Matrix, Beauty's never inspired the kind of cult that injects a film's dialogue into daily conversation and turns the film into a Rosetta Stone for parsing the mysteries of modern life. To further the dick-measuring against Beauty's contemporaries: P.T. Anderson's overripe Magnolia wrung truer emotion from its overly diagrammed threads connecting a cast of miserable suburbanites. Stanley Kubrick made the unrealized carnal longings of Eyes Wide Shut far steamier than Beauty's ridiculously PG-rated sexual fantasies. David O. Russell and Spike Jonze packed a more robust sense of this-is-our-contradictory-American-life absurdity into Three Kings and Being John Malkovich, respectively. And forget Beauty director Sam Mendes — it's Alexander Payne's name, via Election, that's tattooed on the midlife crisis of every hapless nobody who's found his balls again thanks to a throbbing prick over some piece of jailbait. I enjoyed American Beauty during its theatrical run but, with the distance of time and repeated viewings, the film came to look as fresh in my eyes as its fellow 1999-marks-a-new-wave-in-cinema! superhypes The Blair Witch Project or Doug Liman's Go. (Quick, when was the last time you watched either of those?)

Of course, Mr. Solondz and I were correct — up to a point. Alan Ball's screenplay takes its sledgehammer proclamations about the who-am-I? anomie of the middle-class everyman and fashions them into a series of would-be one-liners, giving us cringeworthy moments like his hero Lester Burnham staring down the yuppie boss he's just threatened to blackmail and declaring, "I'm just an ordinary guy with nothin' to lose." (I can just see Ball scooting back from his laptop and pausing to let a chill down his spine after he wrote that one.) Lester's a cubicle-bound zombie hump who takes one look at daughter Jane's new friend Angela and finds himself dusting off his old barbells and Free 8-tracks, and tugging at the threads that hold together his safe two car-garage life. He's alive for the first time in years, and his demented (if understandable) quest for sweet underage pootie could have signaled real inspiration — Kubrick's Lolita updated for teen Daddy's-darlings who proudly slurp baby batter on homemade YouPorn videos; a satirist's knowing laughter at the lengths an encumbered man will go to for a hint of what smells like rebellion.

Instead, Ball flashes his pedigree as a TV writer by keeping things distinctly sitcommy. For the first half-hour, it's like we're watching the pilot for some new dysfunctional-family dramedy on ABC — each character's existential crisis is served up to us in cutely voice-over'd, before-the-commercial-break-sized vignettes. Ball has Lester doing a John Ritter spit-take at the news of Angela sleeping over, or scurrying off from a bout of eavesdropping like the dipshit dad on one of those fat-oaf-with-impossibly-hot-wife shows, and all that's missing is the laugh track and the wacky Benny Hill music. Certainly, Ball must have been combing through rejected Archie Bunker monologues to come up with the moldy "this country is going straight to hell!" boilerplate he sticks in the mouth of Chris Cooper's bigoted Marine dad. (Hollywood shorthand, of course, for all those God-furrin', flag-salutin' folk they picture chuckling at old Ronald Reagan movies next to wives shell-shocked by domesticity, out there in Fly-Over Country.) By the time the film's climax hinges upon a sight gag of innocuous behavior mistaken for gay cocksucking, Ball's pretense to sophistication has fallen flatter than a white mom's ass, and you're wondering just what the hell made Steven Spielberg (whose DreamWorks released the film) not only read the script twice in a row, but demand that not a single word of it be changed.

Beauty purports to sketch a turning point in the life of its heterosexual everyman, but the problem is that it's scripted by a gay writer with — bad news — a look-how-hollow-the-American-family-really-is agenda and — worse — no idea of how to bring the come-spurting fuck-lust and orifice-centered fixations of straight male fantasies to life. Men who fuck women don't imagine said women with their best bits covered up in a bathtub full of rose petals — and we certainly don't imagine them spouting "dirty talk" that reads like a gay eunuch's idea of stilted porn dialogue he read someone else's description of. Ricky waxing rhapsodic about dead homeless women and flying plastic bags is no one that any real female would find herself stripping in a window for — least of all, a high school girl desperate for in-crowd approval — but rather, he's the emotionally bruised, glowingly benevolent soul that represents Ball's ideal slab of dreamy-eyed boy-meat. Likewise, Kevin Spacey as Lester isn't as jarring, perhaps, as the actor trying to sell us his ladies' man Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential — but he is jarring. When Spacey gives his unctuous reading of a line like, "For you, Brad, I've got five," or he sends Lester floating through one of his wife's work functions on a cloud of amused disdain, he might as well be Charles Nelson Reilly cracking innuendos on an old Match Game rerun. It's no mirror held up to Married Joe Six-Pack, but the bitchy wit of a gay man who lives for repartee and two-olive martinis. Spacey holds us at arm's length with his oddly hipster-ish inflections in the beginning — that smug, I'm-in-on-the-joke-and-you're-not vibe that lays bare his distance from the material and imbues Lester with a self-satisfied sarcasm reflex. It's good for a wry quip here and again but, taken in toto, the Oscar-Wilde-in-suburbia act starts to work against the character — it's unbecoming of a lost soul who we're meant to believe has taken more from life than his sore ass can handle.

Chastened perhaps by the Spielberg influence, director Sam Mendes handles the material with gloves on; his framing suggests lacquered objets d'art rather than human beings — wax figurines in an exhibit entitled The American Family Gone Awry. It's all too immaculate, too production-designed, too storyboarded — from overhead shots that reinforce the perception that we're peering down into some sort of peformance-art dollhouse to the way that the text on a computer screen casts "prison bars" over Lester's reflection in one scene. You can feel Mendes behind the camera, straining for first-time director impact, thinking his symbols out, sculpting the mise-en-scène for maximum Norman-Rockwell-goes-to-the-dogs significance. Did it occur to Mendes that a film supposedly about liberation is puritanical and repressed at its core, climaxing with two aborted realizations of the long-suppressed sexual desires that we're meant to equate with the characters' spirits taking flight? Did it occur to Mendes that anyone who's ever watched a movie before will see the character developments coming long before Ball's script thinks they will? Hey, what do you know, the film pants at us, vain model-wannabe Angela is really a supremely insecure little girl seeking validation! Hey, the film nudges us, Ricky the psycho-eyed loner next door, who insists on stalking Jane through his ever-present video camera, is actually a poetic soul who sees all the beauty in the world! And Ricky's emotionally constipated, fag-hating military dad — get this — he's actually a self-loathing homo just dying to be released from the straitjacket of hetero family-man normalcy!

I've come back around on it, though. American Beauty is quite the strange beast — a film that isn't saying half of what it thinks it's saying while being unaware of what it actually is saying. What Ball and Mendes intended was an examination of how the unrealized self (via repressed sexuality) can lead to a stultifying existence at best, and homicide at worst, so why don't we all just break out of the socially-approved cocoons that we've built around ourselves and take flight like the wonderful little butterflies we really are? I see Beauty as the cautionary, all-too-modern tale of a henpecked, thoroughly unappreciated worker bee sleepwalking his way through life when he starts to cast off the yoke of bullshit that Doing All The Things You're Supposed To Do has thrown around his neck. He stops denying the male impulses that life as a sexless married schlump with his dick in a mason jar has taught him to repress. He reacts to being the breadwinner for a couple of sullen, ungrateful twats by diving headfirst into sweet, utter selfishness. He rejects all the crap he's spent the previous twenty-odd years buying into — most especially, marriage to a joyless, cheating, prune-faced scold as the apex of his existence. And, Hollywood pseudo-profundity aside, it's no accident that he dies with such a contented look on his face: he's seen through the glass wall of his jerry-built middle-class identity to find the cosmic joke waiting for him on the other side.

At least half of the Ball/Mendes theory is correct: Lester Burnham is living a lie. The life he's shoehorned himself into is a life that no longer works for men in a compromised modern era of feminist-orchestrated gender politics and marriage as a one-sided contract which the male had better uphold down to the fine print, but which his wife can feel free to break and abuse in accordance with whichever self-justifying whim is guiding her in a given week. And, of course, she needn't worry because even her most self-serving, family-jeopardizing actions are guaranteed the benediction of our current culture's Holiest Father: the echo chamber of you-go-girl reassurance that exists to divest females of their vestigial attachment to outmoded hogwash like personal accountability, and to fatten the coffers of the men selling mass-produced, government-approved Independence™ at 40% off. Lester's wife Carolyn wakes up to find him whacking off — i.e. still able to find some pleasure in his life that doesn't revolve around her — and she launches into a self-righteous banshee impersonation about her own misery, about how "this is not a marriage." Naturally, the fault for that rests solely on her husband's shoulders. Naturally, the only solution to life with a monster who's never abused her or fooled around on her, who dutifully trudges off to work each day, and who supported her through real estate school, is to instigate an affair with her colleague and all but rub it in Lester's face while launching into schoolmarmish conniptions over his tiniest indulgence. Naturally, she's justified in projectile-vomiting scorn and derision all over Lester every time her mouth opens, in according him as little respect in front of their daughter Jane as possible.

That's right, little Timmy: study hard and get a good job. Maybe one day, you too can have what Lester Burnham has: a shrill, ice-veined automaton of a wife who chants plastic mantras of determinism (because you've made her a "victim") and who clutches a handgun in preparation for the confrontation she plans to have with you. As brought to life by a purse-lipped Annette Bening, Carolyn Burnham is the American Career Woman in all her post-feminist glory: a woman who's so obsessed with the image of success — despite her inability to excel in real estate without spreading her legs — that she's shut herself off from human emotion, from her role as a mother, from her own husband. Predictably, dweeby male critics rushed to condemn this characterization as one-note and misogynistic. And sure, Carolyn's straight out of a cartoon when acting as if she'd never heard of masturbation, or when kicking things up another notch on the hysteria meter over Lester's pot-smoking and refusal to give a shit. But that cartoonishness is true to the core of a woman's nature: they secretly envy a man's power and individuality. They rightly recognize that power as the inverse of their own perpetual dependence upon the largesse of the Great Sugar Daddy — be he a father or husband, a boss with quotas to fill, or the gleaming white knight of Big Government, who shoves their every demand to the forefront of the Western political narrative (more abortions! rape culture! the wage gap! more child support!), who makes sure those mean boys talk nice at work and makes damn sure that they lob softer pitches so the girls can have their home runs, too.

Women stare agog at men's accomplishments and recognize — deep under the prideful surface — their own general lack of the will to innovate. They view the inherent singularity of men from under slitted eyelids as they contemplate their own lack of the fearlessness it takes to break from old, accepted modes and conquer new vistas in technology, in business, in the arts — these qualities being indispensable to the growth and competitive flourishing of any civilized society. Male autonomy, by the very fact of its being, taunts women, mocks them in their genetic relegation to the sidelines of the human revolution, and it's male autonomy — even as women find themselves unshakably drawn to it — that drives them to the frothing, child-denied-a-toy fury of a woman like Carolyn. Women can't help but flutter around a man's power like moths, to want to bask in its glow, to wish to claim some of that power — that ability to experience true happiness — for themselves. But they can't, and they know it. Which is why they seek to clamp down on any expression of it — which is why Carolyn squirts her ceaseless nagging and hyper-sensitivity all over Lester's breezy regression to the joys of adolescence.

Of course, we know that girls mimic the model of womanhood put forth by their mothers. Any wonder, then, that daughter Jane's mutated into a hostile goth-lite scag, so blind to the bounty of her many blessings that she can face a mirror with her big, lopsided C-cups spilling past the edges of her reflection, and pout that she needs a tit job? Any surprise that she's grown up so full of designer alienation and a first-worlder's sense of entitlement that she opens the film declaring that Lester is "too embarrassing to live" and needs to be put down like some rabid Saint Bernard? Granted, Lester's been slavering over her friend like a zit-faced Skinemax junkie given a night's access to Laura Gemser. But Jane's no defender of the virtue of high-school cheerleaders — what irks her is that Daddy's deigned to give some other bitch the attention that, by rights, ought to go to her. If it's true that all little girls subconsciously seek to fuck their daddies — and it is — then Jane lashes out at Lester with all the decorum of a spurned mistress, fuming at him that he hasn't spoken to her in months, and banging Ricky because Ricky validates her with voyeuristic longing that allows her to feel something of the worship that Angela must feel under Lester's wank-fueled ogling. Poor Janey — she's just come face to face with the sobering truth that her father is a man with a life beyond the title of "Daddy," beyond her; a man whose personal universe is big enough to accommodate someone other than the brat that spurted from his loins back when he still thought sacrificing his happiness might lead to some greater fulfillment. It's a tale as old as Moses: kid, the world don't revolve around you — and it's the before-and-after line in every female's life that separates that smiling little angel holding a lit sparkler for Daddy from the blistering ball of resentments she inevitably turns into.

It's highly absurd, though, that would-be Carolyns have come to view Lester as some "child molester" for pursuing a fully developed, sexually mature young woman with the rack of a twenty-one year-old Mena Suvari. Labeling as "pedophilia" a man's biologically-hardwired predilection toward fertile young female flesh — the better to carry his seed to fruition without the likelihood of birth defects or a miscarriage — is part and parcel of the shaming of men's natural desires that's been gaining traction for quite some time now. "Cradle-robber!" carp the harpies of the Shame America Squad, Misandry Division. "You mean, you actually prefer to fuck hot young women with taut, firm bodies as opposed to overweight hags? You mean, you chase after girls who are blissfully untainted by the soul-shattering bitterness of women who waste their peak years of attractiveness and reproductive capability bouncing from cock to cock in the name of 'liberation' and 'well, men do it too!'? You mean, you dare to deny the allure of a woman in her mid-thirties and beyond who's shocked to discover that no top-tier man wants to devote his best years to some used-up, roast beef-curtained, possibly abortion-or-STD-sterilized former party girl who's well into the middle stages of her Roman decline?!" And men, picking up the social cues, join right in and happily smother their own instincts while denouncing those of other men, just like they've been programmed to do by the wholly catered-to, endlessly aggrieved daughters of what now passes for feminism — the very women who have been trying for decades to shame human nature into a program of self-denial so as to lessen the repercussions for their increasingly selfish choices.

As always, Hollywood is nothing if not a cocktease who likes to flirt with bold ideas without actually having to bed down with them. American Beauty might have made for a slyly transgressive classic, had Lester gone through with deflowering Angela — the logical follow-through, after all, from all that casting-off-the-boundaries-of-normal-society stuff. Certainly, Lester dealing with the fallout from a perfectly understandable lapse in judgment would have made the film truer to real life, where people seldom suffer from those last-second changes of heart so common to the movies, and where perky cheerleader tits have a way of nullifying even the hardiest of moral objections.

©2013 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic


Neil Fulwood said...

"... slavering over her friend like a zit-faced Skinemax junkie given a night's access to Laura Gemser."

Well played, sir. Well played.

Scott Is NOT A Professional said...

Yes, well. Not that I would know anything about that...

jervaise brooke hamster said...

I want to bugger Thora Birch and Girl-a Suvari (as they were at the time this movie was made, not as they are now obviously).

Scott Is NOT A Professional said...

I want to bugger Thora Birch and Girl-a Suvari (as they were at the time this movie was made, not as they are now obviously).

Congratulations on being a man. Suvari hasn't aged so well — I think she even pulled a chopped-hair, pseudo-lesbian look at some point — but Birch still sports that astounding rack and doesn't appear to have turned into a wizened toad-lady or anything.

Fun facts:

1) Birch's parents are porn stars Jack Birch and Carol Connors, both of whom were featured in Deep Throat.

2) Birch was only sixteen when she did her topless scene in Beauty and, thus, had to obtain her porn star parents' permission in order to bust out the milk cannons for the delight of would-be Lesters everywhere.

Creative Commons License
Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License .